HISTORY IN
    
SAN LUIS OBISPO
        COUNTY
 
  Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
     www.historyinslocounty.org

 

 

 

 

Features and Information:

Viva La Causa!
A Decade of Farm Labor Organizing
on the Central Coast

   [Note:  Residents of the Central Coast are fortunate to have available a traveling exhibit of photographs documenting the farm workers’ struggles to gain union representation in the 1970s.  The following is the introductory text to the exhibit, and is reproduced here with the permission of Catherine J. Trujillo, one of the exhibit's curators. --Lynne Landwehr.]

      Although it is a community with some of the Central Coast's deepest roots, the Mexican American community has had the least say in telling its story in public. It seems that every other community except that of the Mexican Americans, has told its story inside San Luis Obispo County's museums, public galleries, and historical societies. The following traveling exhibit seeks to rectify that narrative imbalance.  Viva la Causa!  A Decade of Farm Labor Organizing on the Central Coast, a collection of photos taken by Manuel Echavarria, is San  Luis Obispo County's first photographic history of Latino farm workers as documented by a former farm-worker and farm labor organizer.

     The 37 photos in the traveling exhibit are an outgrowth of an earlier project. That project was titled A Decade of Farm Labor Organizing in the Santa Maria Valley. It consisted of a collection of 54 black-and-white photographs which commemorate the struggles and triumphs of the mostly-Latino laborers as they fought for better pay and working conditions in the farms and fields of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. 

      Manuel Echavarria, a long-time Oceano resident and United Farm Workers organizer, donated the 54  photographs to California Polytechnic State University’s Kennedy Library Special Collections in 1999.  In a recent tape-recorded interview, Echavarria offered one of his reasons for taking his camera into the fields more than three decades ago: "You don’t want history to say the Mexicano, the Chicano was… passive, [that] everything must have been okay with them. But we know that’s not true. So, ultimately that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been involved with this for so many years. It is to make sure that history doesn’t say that, que estamos todos contentos, that we are happy, that we didn’t exist."  

       More than a bystander, Echavarria experienced the migrant farm worker's life first hand. He was born in Lorraine, Texas, in 1940, but like many other Chicanos, he was also a child of the Mexican Revolution. His father, a former military cadet, had left his native Michoacan to escape one of the most destructive episodes in Mexican history. Soon after arriving in Texas in about 1913, he met and married Manuel's mother and took to sharecropping cotton to feed his family.

     The stories Manuel’s father told would be Manuel's first lessons on the theme of social injustice. "My father started going to school and so forth, but then his eyes started opening.  He was one of those privileged kids going to military school.  So he actually saw what was going on. He told me, 'Hijo, habia tiempo que allà en Mexico cuando . . . Son, there was a time back there in Mexico when a father's debts were taken up by his son. You . . . shopped at the hacienda's store. And if you didn't have enough money, you borrowed on your crop.  When could you pay back your debts? Never.’"  

     Manuel's mother died when he was three years old.  And then the cotton-picking machines came, triggering the migration of millions of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans throughout the southeastern and southwestern cotton-growing states. "So my dad decided to come to California.  We had people here in Guadalupe, and [I’ve] been here since I was about six years old." 

     Manuel worked with his father and sisters in the fields of Oceano and Guadalupe until he was about fifteen, when he dropped out of high school and graduated to Oceano's celery-packing sheds. Soon afterwards, the workers at these packing sites were unionized, teaching Manuel important lessons about the benefits and dignity that comes with worker representation.

     Then, in the mid-1960s, and after having earned his G.E.D., Manuel was inspired by the civil rights struggle, and later, by the anti-war movement. He bought himself a 35-millimeter Pentax and began to capture on film what was, for him, the history-making drama of his life.  Over the course of a decade, he shot hundreds of photographs, showing working conditions that drove many Santa Maria Valley farm workers to support or join the United Farm Workers (UFW). Several photographs include famed UFW labor leader and organizer Cesar Chavez. 

     Cal Poly Ethnic Studies Professor Victor Valle, who initiated the two-year exhibit-organizing effort in collaboration with the Robert E. Kennedy Library’s Special Collections department, saw in Echavarria's photographs an opportunity for an often-overlooked community to begin to tell its own story in its own way.  Valle points out that although Echavarria was not trained as professional photographer, his photos “capture both the emotion and the historical actuality of a decade of farm worker organizing efforts."

     The idea of making the materials available for public and scholarly review also appealed to Echavarria, both as a tool in his continuing efforts and because, in his own words, they vividly portray "an ongoing struggle for human dignity and social justice." 

      Professor Valle said that involving students in the work of transforming Echavarria’s photographs and personal memories into a public record would provide "an opportunity for our students to help an historically marginalized community to represent its own struggles and accomplishments." Valle also believed the archive would serve another vital function: "By documenting this still-hidden decade of labor struggle, our department can … live up to the public scholarship mission of Ethnic Studies by empowering a community – the farm workers of Santa Maria – to commemorate and give meaning to their collective experiences."  

       As powerful as the photographs are, they still needed a narrative.  Jose Garcia, a Cal Poly journalism major, volunteered to annotate and write captions for each of the 54 photographs selected.  The curators of the traveling exhibit and Rogelio Hernandez expanded on the captions and also included Spanish translations.

     It is hoped that exhibiting the Echavarria photographs will stimulate further interest in documenting the county's legacy of multicultural diversity. persons organizations that wish to contribute to future archival projects or obtain information on booking the traveling exhibit should contact Special Collections, Cal Poly/San Luis Obispo, tel. 805/ 756-2305.

     The exhibit is funded in part by the San Luis Obispo Community Foundation, the San Luis Obispo County Arts Council, Frame Works, the Ethnic Studies Department at California Polytechnic State University, and the Special Collections Department of the Robert E. Kennedy Library at Cal Poly.  The exhibit was organized and co-curated by Pedro Arroyo and Catherine J. Trujillo.

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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.
www.historyinslocounty.org